New Mind of the South
By Michelle Valigursky
A sixth-generation Southerner with roots in Alabama, Georgia, and east Tennessee, author Tracy Thompson 77C needed to understand why “none of the conventional definitions of ‘Southerner’ ever seemed to fit me,” she explains. “After twenty years of living outside the Deep South, I decided to set out to make sense of my native region as it moves into the second decade of the 21st Century.”
Her book The New Mind of the South, released in March by Simon and Schuster, has pushed Thompson’s awareness of the realities of Southern life to the forefront of scholars’ and critics’ minds.
As the Wall Street Journal points out in its review, “[Thompson] displays a splendid cynicism toward establishment, politicians of all kinds, and her passion for the truth about forgotten wrongs will inspire all but the most hidebound Southerner."
So how did Thompson approach the question, “What is the Southern identity?” She “spent a lot of time at the beginning asking sophomoric questions of various scholars and experts who probably thought I was a complete ditz,” she says. “One advantage, though, was that other Southerners of my generation had also spent years thinking about some aspect of the same question—what does it mean to be a Southerner?—and none of them minded talking to me about it. Southerners are obsessed with this topic and welcome a chance to go on about it.”
The stories she became privy to fueled her discovery. “What I discovered was a South that was both deeply familiar and yet newly transformed – more ethnically diverse, as intensely religious as ever, yet torn by political-religious schisms, deeply scarred by a racist past yet more sophisticated about race than any other part of the country, its political and social conservatism increasingly offset by a rising new generation that thinks very differently than their elders about ‘God, guns, and gays.’”
Despite the differences between the generations, Thompson realized one common thread remained: “a deep and uniquely Southern sense of community, with taproots that reach deep into an agrarian past and a history of slavery.”
On a personal note, Thompson reveals her own ideology. “I never felt comfortable waving a Confederate flag, I was not a stereotypical Southern belle, I was not rabid about NASCAR or SEC football, I hated the defensive tone so many white Southerners took when speaking of their native region and I hated even more the apologetic, ‘what can you do about the rednecks’ tone other white Southerners took. Most of all, I hated the pandering to stereotypes some Southerners did, writing books about ‘How to Speak Southern’ or making a bunch of ‘you may be a redneck’ jokes,” she recalls. “I just loved the South, I felt it in my bones, and I hungered to understand it.”
Let Discussion Begin
Whenever an author takes a stand like Thompson has done in The New Mind of the South, critics are poised to offer their opinions. “I'm a big girl; I can take criticism. I do get riled by a few critics who dismiss my take on the South because it doesn't have enough Faulkner in it, or because I didn't visit all the usual Stations of the Southern Cross, or because it just didn't match their preconceptions of the South, or because it didn't have any recipes,” Thompson says. “But fair criticism is fine by me. I can't think of anything I've ever done that couldn't have been done better, if I could have just figured out how to do it better.”
Undaunted by facing hard truths, Thompson tackled “Rural Justice” in a series of articles for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and was a finalist for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting. Her previous books The Beast: A Journey through Depression and The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression are also critically acclaimed.
As a literary provocateur completely comfortable with her own curiosity, Thompson takes risks in this latest book beginning with her title. Drawing immediate comparisons to the oft-referenced W. J. Cash 1941 book The Mind of the South, Thompson’s book has far surpassed the notion of similarity and earned support and praise for “prose that fairly crackles.” DailyBeast.com hailed it as “a clear-eyed, deeply considered look at the evolution of a part of the country that, more than a century after the end of the Civil War, continues to remain something of a foreign entity to rest of the nation.”
The Oxford American concluded, “[I]t's high time that we're given an unflinching and accurate characterization of this place that has grown so different in even the last thirty years, despite sometimes clamoring to remain the same.” Boston Globe concurred by saying, “The New Mind of the South is a lucid and inspired endeavor that gracefully handles the Southern paradoxes and polishes away rusted typecasts.”
Thompson Shares This Advice
Thompson is a writer of many skills, and her professional background includes deadline reporting for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Washington Post newspapers, freelance work, book writing, and a great deal of dedication to her craft. She shares this advice with others looking to try their hand at writing, personally or professionally.
“The only way to learn how to write is to read—and the way to read is to think of reading like food. Do not fill your mind up with junk. The more junk you read, the more bad writing habits you will acquire—clichés and one-dimensional characters in fiction, lazy thinking, and snark in non-fiction,” Thompson says.
As a three-time book author with a growing reputation for her astute observations, she offers an action plan for would-be writers. “Observe. Keep your mouth shut and just watch the world around you. I guarantee you will find something interesting.”
Editor’s Note: To learn more about Tracy Thompson and her work, please visit www.tracythompson.com.